From this hill village in the south of the country, I am watching the clouds of brown and black smoke rising from its latest disaster in the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil: up to 13 Israeli soldiers dead, and others surrounded, after a devastating ambush by Hizbollah guerrillas in what was supposed to be a successful Israeli military advance against a “terrorist centre”.
To my left smoke rises too, over the town of Khiam, where a smashed United Nations outpost remains the only memorial to the four UN soldiers – most of them decapitated by an American-made missile on Tuesday – killed by the Israeli air force.
Indian soldiers of the UN army in southern Lebanon, visibly moved by the horror of bringing their Canadian, Fijian, Chinese and Austrian comrades back in at least 20 pieces from the clearly marked UN post next to Khiam prison, left their remains at Marjayoun hospital yesterday.
In past years, I have spent hours with their comrades in this UN position, which is clearly marked in white and blue paint, with the UN’s pale blue flag opposite the Israeli frontier. Their duty was to report on all they saw: the ruthless Hizbollah missile fire out of Khiam and the brutal Israeli response against the civilians of Lebanon.
Is this why they had to die, after being targeted by the Israelis for eight hours, their officers pleading to the Israeli Defence Forces that they cease fire? An American-made Israeli helicopter saw to that.
In Bint Jbeil, meanwhile, another bloodbath was taking place. Claiming to “control” this southern Lebanese town, the Israelis chose to walk into a Hizbollah trap. The moment they reached the deserted marketplace, they were ambushed from three sides, their soldiers falling to the ground under sustained rifle fire. The remaining Israeli troops – surrounded by the “terrorists” they were supposed to liquidate – desperately appealed for help, but an Israeli Merkava tank and other vehicles sent to help them were also attacked and set on fire. Up to 17 Israeli soldiers may have died so far in this disastrous operation. During their occupation of Lebanon in 1983 more than 50 Israeli soldiers were killed in just one suicide attack.
The battle for southern Lebanon is on an epic scale but, from the heights above Khiam, the Israelis appear to be in deep trouble. Their F-16s turn in the high bright sun – small, silver fish whose whispers gain in volume as they dive – and their bombs burst over the old prison, where the Hizbollah are still holding out; beyond the frontier, I can see livid fires burning across the Israeli hillsides and the Jewish settlement of Metullah billowing smoke.
It was not meant to be like this, 15 days into Israel’s assault on Lebanon. The Katyushas still streak in pairs out of southern Lebanon, clearly visible to the naked eye, white contrails that thump into Israeli’s hillsides and border towns.
So is it frustration or revenge that keeps Israel’s bombs falling on the innocent? In the early hours two days ago, a tremendous explosion woke me up, rattling the windows and shaking the trees outside, and a single flash suffused the western sky over Nabatiyeh.
The lives of an entire family of seven had just been extinguished.
And how come – since this now obsesses the humanitarian organisations working in Lebanon – that the Israelis bombed two ambulances in Qana, killing two of the three wounded inside. All the crews were injured – one with a piece of shrapnel in his neck – but what worried the Lebanese Red Cross was that the Israeli missiles had pierced the very centre of the red cross painted on the roof of each vehicle. Did the pious use the cross as their aiming point?
The bombardment of Khiam has set off its own brush fires on the hillsides below Qlaya, whose Maronite Christian inhabitants now stand on the high road above like spectators at a 19th century battle. Khiam is – or was – a pretty village of cut-stone doorways and tracery windows, but Israel’s target, apart from the obviously marked UN position whose inhabitants they massacred, is the notorious prison in which – before its retreat from Lebanon in 2000 – hundreds of Hizbollah members and, in some cases, their families, were held and tortured with electricity by Israel’s proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army.
This was the same prison complex – turned into a “museum of torture” by the Hizbollah after the Israeli retreat – that was visited by the late Edward Said shortly before his death. More important, however, is that many of the Hizbollah men originally held prisoner here were captives in cells deep underground the old French mandate fort. These same men are now fighting the Israelis, almost certainly sheltering from their fire in the same underground cells in which they languished, perhaps even storing some of their missiles there.
In Marjayoun, next to Qlaya, once the SLA’s headquarters, Lebanese troops are trying to prevent Hizbollah guerrillas using the streets of the Greek Catholic town to fire yet more missiles at Israel. Seven-man Lebanese army patrols are moving through the darkened roads of both towns at night in case the Hizbollah brings yet more Israeli bombs down on our heads.
In Beirut, one observes the folly of Western nations with amusement as well as horror, but, sitting in these hill villages and listening to how the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, plans to reshape Lebanon is clearly a lesson in human self-delusion. According to US correspondents accompanying Ms Rice on her visit to the Middle East, she is proposing the intervention of a Nato-led force along the Lebanese-Israeli border for between 60 and 90 days to assure that a ceasefire exists, the deployment of an enlarged Nato force throughout Lebanon to disarm Hizbollah and then the retraining of the Lebanese army before its own deployment to the border.
This plan – which, like all American proposals on Lebanon, is exactly the same as Israel’s demands – carries the same depth of conceit as that of the Israeli consul general in New York, who said last week that “most Lebanese appreciate what we are doing”.
Does Ms Rice think the Hizbollah want to be disarmed? By Nato? Wasn’t there a Nato force in Beirut which fled Lebanon after a group close to the Hizbollah bombed the US Marine base at Beirut airport in 1983, killing 241 US servicemen and dozens more French troops a few seconds later? Does anyone believe that Shia Muslim forces will not do the same again to any Nato “intervention” force? The Americans are talking about Egyptian and Turkish troops in southern Lebanon; Sunni Muslims ruling Shia territory.
The Hizbollah has been waiting and training and dreaming of this new war for years, however ruthless we may regard the actions. They are not going to surrender the territory they liberated from the Israeli army in an 18-year guerrilla war, least of all to Nato at Israel’s bidding.
Yesterday’s assault on the Israeli army in Bint Jbeil proved that. The problem is that the US sees this slaughterhouse as an “opportunity” rather than a tragedy, a chance to humble Hizbollah supporters in Tehran and help to shape the “new Middle East” of which Ms Rice spoke so blithely this week.
It is Israel which is running out of time in southern Lebanon. Its attacks have for the fifth time in 30 years placed it in the dock for war crimes in Lebanon. The toll of Lebanon’s civilian casualties has reached 400. And still the US will not intervene to prevent the carnage, even to call for a 24-hour ceasefire to allow the 3,000 civilians still trapped between Qlaya and Bint Jbeil – who include a number of foreign nationals – to flee.
The only civilian walking those frightening roads to Qlaya was a goatherd, guiding his animals around the huge bomb craters in the tarmac. Talking to him, it emerged that he was almost stone deaf and obviously could not hear the bombs. In this, it seemed, he has a lot in common with Condoleezza Rice.